Barber Centennial CD Notes

Barber Centennial CD Notes

I stayed home the summer before high school. No music camp or piano competition. Not much to do. So my parents bought me a video of Baryshnikov, my favorite male dancer, and it happened to be a documentary/performance of Configurations, set to Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, played by John Browning. I was completely mesmerized. Not only had I always dreamed about being a dancer (but my legs weren’t straight enough for Beijing’s dance school), the Romantic musical language of Barber touched my teenager’s soul. I watched the video over the over, memorizing the choreography although I did not know any ballet terminology. I did not memorize the complex music until many years later. I had always been a visual learner, and Choo San Goh's imaginative movements brought to life the innovative sound gestures and rich orchestral textures.

After I got my degrees from Juilliard and Yale, I was faced with the cold hard reality that I no longer had a piano teacher to be responsible for me. Unlike the vocalists I played for at Yale, who have coaches throughout their career, pianists work in ivory towers, left to navigate the unfamiliar waters of post-school life on our own. My teacher Claude Frank, while being an amazing musician, firmly believed that one should calmly sit through his/her twenties before embarking on a career, much to my chagrin. There was no career development in those days, but I was determined to jump right in and figure it out as I go. The most ambitious project I could think of was to learn and record the Barber Concerto. Not many people tackled the Barber Concerto, but I remembered that Jackie Parker (whom I met at the Ravinia Festival) plays it, so I asked him to talk through it with me. I could not afford to pay a teacher of his stature, but I asked to buy him lunch. He was so gracious and never once questioned my ability to pull it off.

The next step was to find a non-unionized orchestra. One of the orchestras with which my uncle/mentor Fei-Ping Hsu had collaborated was the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra in Moscow. With the Russian exchange rate being so low at the time, it was actually affordable and quite available for hire. So I got the idea to write every sponsor I ever had from the age of 10, and fundraise enough money to foot the bill and buy an airplane ticket to Moscow. I was able to stay with a friend of a friend, whose husband is actually a well-known American opera critic. It was very strange doing all this without a producer or any experience whatsoever, but I guess it also protected me from knowing just what I had gotten myself into. I arrived at the recording session, and the first bit of news was that the conductor never got the score in the mail. Only a man of true genius, and one utterly oblivious to how complex the Barber piano concerto was, would show up at a recording session without telling anyone of this problembeforehand. He was both. I myself, having no experience (as I previously admitted), matched his disregard for a reality check. I gave him my own score (I practice with the orchestral score), and said “let’s start”.

In the short hours we had together, there was no shortage of Russian "exclamations" or my trying to convince the sight-reading players to get all the details. Why would I need to hear a 32nd note instead of a 16th in the middle of the texture if nobody else noticed the difference? Surprisingly, some of the most difficult places were no problems for their sight-reading. It was a very entertaining cultural/aesthetic mishmash of whatever-you-call-it. I gave the recording engineer my choice of edits, but was sent a different version. With the help of their Chinese manager, I discovered that the nice lady in the back, whom I thought was some administrator, was their producer, and picked the edits to make the orchestra sound the best. “But I'm the one paying for this, “ I insisted. “I have to have my edits.” My argument won, but it’s always good to give duty-free cigarettes just in case.

I came back to the US with my first concerto recording ever, and shared it with my friends. I did not think about recording a second piece to complete a full-length CD for another several years. Dr. Veda Kaplinsky, who had helped me recover from a serious shoulder injury, had once suggested that I learn the Barber sonata. I, being the youthful romantic, would not touch it until I felt inspired to do it. I did not want to become another hacker at the keys.

The idea of the Barber Sonata resurfaced earlier this year, the centennial year of Barber’s birth. I wanted to put together a Barber Celebration at the University of Colorado- Boulder, where I run the Pendulum New Music Series. With gratitude for my new friend pianist Larry Graham and for Horowitz’s historical recording, I connected with the sonata this time around. Many thanks to Brandon Vaccaro, my recording engineer, and to my husband, composer Daniel Kellogg, who first gave me the courage and desire to perform post-war/contemporary music.

Hsing-ay Hsu ©2010